Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, Lyle Lovett & Toots Thielmans : Smile

Exploring the genius of Charlie Chaplin featuring :

Chaplin himself, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, Lyle Lovett & Toots Thielmans.

Genius is an extremely overworked term when applied to popular artists of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, without any hesitation I can assert that Charlie Chaplin was a genius.

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He was a master of every aspect of film making – writing, acting, producing and directing.

And, he did something only the very rarest artists do – he created an iconic character (the Tramp) who has become part of the very fabric of popular consciousness.

He was a Poet of  the Cinema with a deep tragi-comic vision.

A vision whose beauty and truth was recognised and welcomed whatever the age, language and culture of those who encountered his films.

The best definition of genius I know comes from Arthur Schopenhauer :

‘The genius … lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign.

Accordingly, he cannot go hand in hand with the regular course of the culture of the times as found; on the contrary, he casts his works far out on to the path in front …

Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see.’

Charlie Chaplin fully meets that definition.

Oh, and in addition to the honour board of talents listed above he was also a talented composer who wrote the music for one of the most affecting songs of his and any other era – ‘Smile’.

Chaplin, of course, thought in cinematic terms so let’s kick off this tribute to his genius with ‘Smile’ in its first incarnation as part of his score to his masterpiece from 1936, ‘Modern Times’.

Every element of this scene reflects the enormous pains Chaplin took to achieve the exact effects he was seeking.

Chaplin knew all about the Fear and Sorrow that beset so many lives.

He knew that a smile was often your best disguise and perhaps your only defence against the sadness that might otherwise overwhelm you.

The Tramp always keeps alive a spark of Hope, of determination to survive – to be present for what, who knows, may, just may, turn out to be a better tomorrow.

Chaplin’s whole cinematic persona – in the delicacy of his facial gestures and the gamut of his physical pantomime amounts in a sense to an alertness to the promise of Life – no matter how dire the circumstances.

With his mastery of mime and the balletic grace of his movement he was able to convey more nuances of emotion than a hundred lines of dialogue could convey.

His genius was both to acknowledge the Fear and Sorrow but not to surrender to it – to grandly and magnificently literally laugh in the face of it.

And, if Charlie can survive so might we.

As cinema goers, a spring anew in their step, left a Chaplin film they were reassured that light and laughter could outshine the darkness.

Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
for you ….

The lyric and a title for Chaplin’s melody came from John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons in 1954.

The Premier recording was by a peerless balladeer of Golden Age American Song – Nat King Cole.

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just Smile.

There is no grandiloquence in Nat’s performance.

Knowing that he had a rare treasure here he simply presents the song allowing the beauty of the melody and the poignancy of the words to travel into the hearts and minds of the audience.

‘Simple’ for Nat King Cole because of the burnished gold of his voice which makes us all gladly share any emotion he is evoking.

If I imagine an exhausted couple slow dancing to Nat’s version in the sanctuary of their home I can only imagine the next take as a solo dance underneath a waning Moon.

Judy Garland.

If ever an artist was born to sing a song it was Judy to sing, ‘Smile’.

Fear and Sorrow and Heartbreak surrounded her all her days.

And, those circumstances were fully incarnated in her voice when she sang – especially when she sang, ‘Smile’.

Her Version is filled with tears and sadness – the gladness and the smile is in the going on, the going on.

I am going to repeat something I wrote about Garland before because I don’t think I can say what I mean to say any better.

Her singing on this song seems to me to be almost miraculous.

It’s as if her singing really came from secret chambers of the heart all the rest of us keep under guard.

No wonder she has such a deep impact on us – we know she is expressing a profound truth about the human condition – our need to love and know we are loved.

Judy Garland paid a high price in terms of personal happiness for living her life and art with such an exposed heart and soul but she fulfilled a vocation given to very few and left an indelible mark on her age and will surely do for aeons to come.

There are hundreds and hundreds of versions of Smile but not a single one sounds anything like the depths that Judy Garland does.

And now for something completely different!

Jimmy Durante brought his own very real magic to Smile.

A straight from the shoulder, Hey Bud, have one on me, growl that’s surprisingly affecting.

Lyle Lovett knows songs having written many fine ones himself.

There is always consideration and deliberation involved in the way he approaches a song.

So, his Smile is ruminative, baffled and melancholic.

 

To conclude here’s something really special.

The great Jazz Harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielmans, at 90, bringing a lifetime of craft and experience to bear on Chaplin’s insights into the changeable weather of the human heart.

In a previous feature on, ‘The Third Man’ I noted that it had one of the great endings in the Film Canon.

Well, Charlie Chaplin was a supreme master of ending a Film in a highly memorable and emotionally satisfying way.

The melody plays, the camera rolls and our hearts are uplifted.

Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just Smile

If you just Smile.

56 thoughts on “Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, Lyle Lovett & Toots Thielmans : Smile

  1. Thom, I’m close to speechless with your brilliant piece here on Chaplin & “Smile.” I identify with all the content here except the Lyle Lovett rendition & that of Toots Thielmans. What you quoted from Arthur Schopenhauer about Chaplin is true for you & your piece here: “Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see.” What you think & feel about Chaplin & “Smile” is a target others may not fully “get” & appreciate. –I do. Thank you. Phil

    Liked by 1 person

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